Hunting Hugo: Into the Eyewall

We hit the eyewall. Darkness falls. Powerful gusts of winds tear at the aircraft, slamming us from side to side. Torrential rains hammer the airplane. Through my rain-streaked window, I watch the left wingtip flex down a meter, then up a meter, then down two meters through the gloomy dark-grey twilight. My stomach is clenched into a tight knot. The ride is choppy, uncomfortable.

I grab the computer console with both hands, trying to steady my vision on the blurred computer readouts. I don't like what I see. The winds are rising too quickly, the pressure falling too fast. Hugo is far more powerful than expected. The aircraft lurches and bucks in severe turbulence.

Thirty seconds in, a minute and a half to go. The turbulence grows worse, second only to the incredible turbulence we encountered in Hurricane Emily in 1987 as it made landfall on the mountains of Hispanolia. During that flight, we hit the highest G forces ever encountered by our P-3.s in a hurricane--three G's--and had to abort the flight when the extreme turbulence caused a dangerous resonant vibration in the wings.

Hugo is stronger than Emily. I am very concerned. We should not be at 1,500 feet!

I fumble for the intercom switch, find it. "Winds are 135 mph, surface pressure 960 millibars," I say. "Hugo's at least a category 4."

Frank breaks in. "Lowell, Jeff, this ride is way too rough! Let's climb to 5,000 when we finish this penetration."

"Roger!" is Lowell's terse reply. Both he and Gerry must wrestle with the controls of the airplane. The turbulence is so violent that one pilot alone cannot stay in control. There is no possibility of climbing now; the pilots need the full power of the engines just to keep the airplane flying straight and level.

One minute in, one minute to go. The intercom goes silent as everyone hangs on and the pilots concentrate on getting us through the eyewall. I watch the winds and the track of the aircraft to ensure we are on course to the eye. Gerry does a great job fighting off the turbulence and keeping the airplane on track. I don't need to order any course corrections. Winds are now 155 mph, still rising. Pressure 955 millibars, dropping fast. The turbulence grows extreme. Hugo is almost a category five hurricane.

A fierce updraft wrenches the airplane, slams us into our seats with twice the force of gravity. Seconds later, we dangle weightless as a stomach-wrenching downdraft slams us downward. Clipboards, headsets, and gear bags spill loose and slide across the cabin floor.

Another updraft, much stronger, grabs the aircraft. I regret forgetting to fasten my shoulder harness, as I struggle to keep from bashing into the computer console. Seconds later, a huge downdraft blasts us, hurling the loosened gear against walls and floor. Gerry and Lowell are barely in control of the aircraft. Grimly, I hang on to my console against the violent turbulence and watch the numbers. A 20 mph updraft. A 22 mph downdraft. Sustained winds now 185 mph, gusting to 196 mph. Pressure plummeting, down to 930 millibars. Hugo is a category five hurricane, and we are in the eyewall at 1500 feet! One strong downdraft has the power to send us plunging into the ocean. We have no options other than to gut it out and make it to the eye, where we can climb to a safer altitude.

A minute and a half gone, half a minute to go. A colossal 45 mph updraft seizes the airplane. A shower of loose gear flies through the cabin as the airplane lurches violently. Gerry fights the updraft off, keeps the airplane level and headed towards the eye. We're almost there!

"Looks like it's lightening up out there!" Lowell's relieved voice breaks the intense silence. Sure enough, the sky lightens, the clouds thin, the rain abates. We are at the edge of the eyewall. A big smile of jubilation erases my anxious frown. We got away with a penetration at 1,500 feet in a category five storm!

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